Let’s un-man the stereotype


By Gina Velde

Automated aerial mapping has transformed the way we survey large, inaccessible areas, yet the term ‘unmanned’ appears to reinforce outdated gender stereotypes all too common in both the aviation and geospatial industries. And as hobbyist and low quality systems with their associated safety concerns are becoming commonplace, the term falls short of an accurate description that reflects the huge safety benefits this technology brings to the mining, construction and surveying industries.

Aviation is one of the most gender stereotyped industries in the world, with men making up the vast majority of airline executives and pilots, women the flight attendants and booking receptionists. A recent campaign by Virgin Australia to put ‘the romance back’ in flying seemed to reinforce these stereotypes, with male pilots flanked by glamorous female flight attendants and a call back to the ‘good old days’ of flying. Sure, they have the odd token woman pilot in their adverts, but in the main male pilots lead the flock of pretty, red-lipsticked cabin crew. And that’s not to single out Virgin Australia as an exception, almost all airline websites feature similar images.

The geospatial industry stereotypes may not be quite as glamorous, but the roles are still neatly defined: men predominate in the board rooms and out in the field, women in receptionist, marketing and accounting roles.

When automated aerial mapping was introduced to the geospatial industry in 2011, the two industries crossed paths for the first time. Yet despite the groundbreaking technology that has revolutionised the way we survey large areas or monitor and inspect hard to reach structures, the accepted industry terms use gender-stereotyped language that is all too common in both industries.

‘Unmanned Aerial Systems’ or UAS has become the widely used term to describe either fixed wing or multi-rotor solutions for a range of different industries. It may seem a perfectly adequate description and it has the advantage of differentiating these industry-specific solutions from the more generic term ‘drone’ with all its negative connotations to do with war and espionage.

You may also think the word ‘unmanned’ is harmless given its route in the word ‘mankind’ (and so far there’s been no push to change this to ‘peoplekind’), yet the Oxford Dictionary definition of ‘not having or needing a crew or staff’ is technically incorrect when it comes to describing these systems, as they require a certified pilot on the ground to control them.

When looking for alternatives that would enable us to keep the UAS or UAV acronym that has become widely accepted as an industry term, it seems that all the variations fall short. ‘Unattended’ suggests the aircraft is left to its own devices, ‘uninhabited’ suggests unchartered landscapes and hardly rolls off the tongue, ‘unpiloted’ is better but ignores the fact that there is a certified pilot on the ground who went through rigorous training and is in control at all times. ‘Unoccupied’ is perhaps the most technically correct option and provides a gender inclusive alternative if we are to keep the acronym.

We are doing the technology a disservice by not reinforcing its safety benefits and supporting gender neutrality in our language.

Pushing for gender equality is highly topical, given recent campaigns by major Australian companies such as ANZ bank to create an ‘equal future’ for the next generation. In an emotive video whereby young girls read out statistics such as “women make up 40% of the world’s workforce, yet control only a ¼ of the world’s wealth,” the campaign states that although girls learn to read and talk faster than boys, “the system’s not designed for women to succeed.”

Isis Wenger, a software engineer based in the United States, recently created the hashtag #ILookLikeAnEngineer in response to negative comments about her ‘not looking like an engineer should’ on a recruitment advert for her company. The hashtag quickly spread to more than 50 countries and garnered some 75,000 tweets as it resonated with thousands of other women engineers who had faced similar gender stereotyping and inappropriate comments in the workplace.

Despite many legislative, social and commercial initiatives to improve equality across all industries, the aviation, engineering, surveying, construction and mining industries remain highly male dominated fields. In 2005, only 8.5% of the Spatial Sciences Institute members were women (Baldock and Bartolo, 2007:1024) and it is thought that only 3-4% of airline pilots are female (Mitchell, Kristovics and Vermeulen, 2006:36).

In other industries, “the metaphorical glass door to female entry into professional positions and the glass ceiling that has limited the promotion of women are slowly being eroded,” (Mitchell, Kristovics and Vermeulen, 2006:38). However for industries such as aviation, surveying, engineering and construction the tide is taking a long time to turn.

There is encouraging evidence to suggest that more women are entering the spatial industry, with SSI female membership increasing from 8.5% to 10% in a 2-year period from 2005 to 2007 and the majority of women in this sector falling within the young professionals category, being 35 years or younger (Baldock and Bartolo, 2007:1025). Much of this growth can be attributed to the work of the ‘Women in Spatial’ initiative that was initiated in 2006.

If we are to change the stereotypes and redress the balance, we must first alter perceptions. “Perceptions influence and underpin the professional culture of pilots and the aviation industry. As masculinity is the dominant perception within the industry, female pilots are faced with a confronting perception that is often unarticulated but acted out through associated behaviours,” (Michell, Kristovics and Vermeulen, 2006:37).

Altering industry terms to be more gender neutral is just one way that we can begin to address the perception of gender stereotypes in these industries. And by phasing out inaccurate industry terms we can reinforce a major benefit they provide, namely eliminating the need for surveyors to canvas hazardous areas on foot to collect data.

So let’s make that change and either replace ‘unmanned’ with ‘unoccupied’ or, better yet, follow the lead of Australia’s Civil Aviation and Safety Authority (CASA) and adopt the term Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS) instead.

It may seem like a small change, to some an insignificant or pointless one. But there will be no overnight solution to gender equality in the workforce, it will take years of small but important shifts in our perceptions and our preconceptions.

By the same token, let’s not downplay the vital role of an experienced, qualified pilot – male or female – in the overall solution. Technology can do wonderful things to streamline and automate all sorts of tasks, but when it comes to the professional delivery of aerial mapping services, the system itself is only half of the equation, if that.

Language is powerful when it comes to making and changing our preconceptions. We must actively accept and promote these small but significant language shifts in order to make not just the term, but the overall concept, the new normal.

By Gina Velde
@GinaVelde | LinkedIN

Mitchell, J., Kristovics, A. and Vermeulen, L. (2006), Gender Issues in Aviation: Pilot Perceptions and Employment Relations, International Journal of Employment Studies, Vol.14, No.1, April

Baldock, P. and Bartolo, R. (2007), Women in the Spatial Sciences: A Snapshot of Gender Composition in the Spatial Industry, Proceedings of the Spatial Science Institute Biennial International Conference, Hobart, Tasmania 14-17 May

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